Hunter Valley Grape Varieties & Wine Styles

Grape Varieties & Wine Styles

The Hunter climate may be an unusual one for quality wine grapes, but the results are indisputable. And that the climate typically produces shiraz of medium weight with a distinctly savoury cast provides a style signature of grape to region that is utterly unique. Perhaps most unique, and that word is not used lightly, is the specialisation in semillon, and in a style that is seen nowhere else in the world, except perhaps in imitation.

Semillon is most famously used as a blending component (along with sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle) of the aromatic and textural dry wines of Bordeaux and their sweet counterparts, most famously from the appellations of Sauternes and Barsac, where the grapes become a vehicle for the expression of botrytis.

Hunter Valley semillon, on the other hand, is all about nervy tension and purity. They are classically picked early, typically in January, with a potential alcohol typically hovering just above 10 per cent. They ripple with acidity, are light bodied, achingly dry and have aromas of lemon and cut herbs. And then they age.

A quality Hunter semillon, with a good cork or ideally a screw cap, will cellar for many decades, making it one of the world’s longest ageing white wines. Over time, it will pick up toasty, honeyed and lemon curd notes and build texture in the palate. It was always said that the impression of oak, which was rarely a factor in traditional winemaking (neutral large-format oak, yes, but not oak flavour), was something that mature semillon developed, with some even comparing the wines to aged Burgundy.

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that chardonnay eclipses semillon for plantings, with it creeping up on shiraz as the most dominant variety. Chardonnay has a noble history in the Hunter, with James Busby (the great importer of vine cuttings in the 1830s) planting it both in the Sydney Botanic Gardens and the Hunter Valley. Anecdotally, cuttings ended up in nearby Mudgee, which were identified in the late 60s and saw Mudgee become the cradle of Chardonnay in this country – if we have now somewhat moved on. But it is perhaps Tyrrell’s famous ‘Vat 47’, launched in 1971, that advanced the chardonnay cause more than any other – though it was erroneously labelled ‘Pinot Chardonnay’ for many decades.

It’s also worth noting that the Hunter is the home of pinot noir in this country, with Australia’s most prolific and famous clone, MV6, originally sourced from vine material at Mount Pleasant. Hunter pinot is unlike what you might expect from somewhere like Mornington, with a savoury and structured profile, making clearer sense of O’Shea’s thinking when he decided to blend it with shiraz in the 40s.

The Hunter has also historically had a large array of grape varieties planted, and it is still a place where French vignerons come to source pre-phylloxera vine material for their own vineyards. Today, many varieties are returning, and many more are being planted for the first time. Iberian varieties like tempranillo and touriga are finding success, and so too are Italian ones, like vermentino and fiano. Gamay is also making some gentle waves (it was actually first planted here in the 70s by Len Evans, and Tyrrell’s make a wine from those vines) as is pinot meunier, which was widely planted in the 19th century. The future is bright both for the stalwarts and the newcomers, with there being little doubt that many Mediterranean varieties will eventually excel in the Hunter.

Hunter Valley in numbers*

  • Elevation: 50–220 metres above sea level:
  • Annual rainfall: 470 mm
  • Mean temperature (Jan): 22.3°C
  • Area under vine: 2,324 hectares
  • White grapes: 53%
  • Red grapes: 47%
  • Average yield: 2.1 t/ha

Top five varieties crushed (2018)

*Statistics courtesy of Wine Australia

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